RPM, Volume 17, Number 33, August 9 to August 15, 2015

Is Intelligent Design Science?

By John M. Frame

"Intelligent Design" (henceforth ID) is the view that the universe gives evidence of being the product of an intelligent designer. As such it is a very old view. Certainly this was the position of the biblical writers (as Ps. 19:1, Rom. 1:18-20). Historically, many have articulated this position by means of the "teleological argument:" that when unintelligent beings act for a purpose, they must be under the control of a personal intelligence.

For the past 150 years or so, the focus has been on teleology as opposed to atheistic evolution. Many like B. B. Warfield accepted evolution in its general outlines, but they insisted that the evolutionary process must have been directed by a personal God. Others, such as the Institute for Creation Research, argued that evolution, as usually conceived, has not occurred at all. In their view, the earth is only around 10,000 years old, and the fossil record can be explained by Noah's flood. Although the ICR has been accused of imposing on nature a view derived from the Bible, they have protested that no, their arguments are based on science alone.

Today, however, "ID" refers to a specific movement that became famous with the 1991 publication of Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial.1 Johnson is a Christian and a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. Other prominent members of the movement are Michael Behe2 and William Dembski. 3 Behe and Dembski are scientists. Johnson is not, but as a lawyer he has considerable skill at criticizing arguments, and he has used that skill impressively in debunking Darwinist claims.

Unlike the ICR, the ID group does not argue for a young earth or for flood geology. They are willing to accept the chronological sequence of life-forms more or less as the evolutionists present it. But evolutionism today ("neo-Darwinism," as it is sometimes called) argues that natural forces (mainly natural selection and genetic mutation) are sufficient to account for all living beings; it is not necessary to invoke God. This is the specific issue between neo-Darwinism and ID.

As a critique of evolution, ID has attracted more support than ICR and others, even among scientists, though its support among them is still fairly small. Many Christian philosophers of science have applauded their work.

So the question has come up as to whether ID should be taught to school students. Developments following the Scopes trial in 1925 established the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Almost nobody today seeks to exclude the teaching of evolution in the schools. Even Christian creationists, on the whole, acknowledge that students should know what the theory of evolution is, since it has become the pervasive view of biologists and geologists. But the question now arises whether ID should be taught alongside evolution as an alternate view.

For the most part, the legal situation has not gone well for ID. Courts have ruled that because it is "religion," not "science," it has no place in a science curriculum. Further, to teach ID, many contend, is to violate the principle of the "separation of church and state."

I hold an originalist view of the church/state issue. The US Constitution says nothing about a "wall of separation" between church and state. It only forbids Congress to set up a nationally established church. When the Constitution was written, several states had established churches. Part of the intent of the Constitution was to give freedom to the states in this regard. Certainly none of the founders intended to abolish all support of religion by government. Nevertheless, my view is not the one currently sanctioned by the courts. Probably the question of the teaching of ID will not be resolved by a rethinking of the relation of church and state.

But more should be said on the relation of religion and science. Is ID religion, rather than science? In my judgment, religion and science are not easily separated, for reasons such as the following:

1. Science is religious. A great many writers (Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Clouser, Van Til, Polanyi, Kuhn, Hanson, Poythress) have made an impressive case that science is not religiously neutral. At the most obvious level, science presupposes many things that it cannot prove, but must take on faith: the uniformity of nature, the correspondence of thought with reality, the universality of physical laws, the values required for the honest pursuit of truth. Indeed, their ideas and methodology presuppose Christian theism, though not all of them are willing to admit it. 4

Despite the uncertainty of much science, there is also a sense in which science, like religion, imposes "orthodoxy" on its participants. As Kuhn indicates, bodies of research create communities of scientists, and if anyone wants to enter that community he must not deviate from the standard paradigms. Certainly something like this has happened among Neo-Darwinists. So there is a strong analogy between science and religion that has been overlooked in much of the discussion.

2. Science is more than observation and experiment. As many of the abovementioned thinkers point out, scientists do not simply gather data. They also propose hypotheses for investigation. Then they must deduce consequences from those hypotheses. Observation and experiment seek these consequences in order to verify or falsify the hypothesis. But the hypothesis itself is not necessarily the result of observation or experimentation. Einstein, for example, did not develop his theories of relativity on the basis of observation or experiment. Rather, his ideas initially came from "thought experiments," imagining how things are likely to be. Many of his hypotheses have subsequently been verified by observation and experiment. Einstein was not himself an experimental scientist. But no one would deny that he was a scientist of the first order.

The work of science, then, is not only observational and experimental, but also imaginative and logical. The scientist must use his imagination to determine significant hypotheses, and his logic to determine what it would take to verify or falsify these hypotheses and whether an experiment has, in fact, verified or falsified it.

People often complain that ID is not science, because it is not based on observation and experiment. This charge is false, because ID writers rely on research already done by others. And some ID writers like Behe have done and published significant research. (Some other ID writers have done the same, but have had trouble publishing their findings because, they claim, of bias.)

But the main contribution of ID to the discussion is logical: to evaluate what is required to verify evolutionary theory, to judge whether the evidence establishes it, and if not, what changes must be made to evolutionary theory to make it credible. ID primarily interprets data, rather than accumulating it. But that doesn't make ID unscientific.

Most neo-Darwinism today is explicitly anti-theistic. Neo-Darwinists believe that they have established a naturalistic basis for the origin and development of life. ID denies that they have established this and brings up evidence to the contrary. Why should the denial of theism be considered science, while the affirmation of it is considered "religion?" It is no less scientific to deduce intelligent design from the data than to deduce an unintelligent origin. 5

So Darwinism, in some senses, is religious, and ID is scientific.

3. Science must be open to all truth. Even if science and religion can be sharply distinguished, which I deny, it is important to understand what is involved in the "openness" of science to truth. Let's imagine that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that in that book God speaks on some matters of importance to science. Now in the current discussion this possibility would be dismissed as an encroachment of religion on science. But, whether Scripture is religion or science, at least its believers claim that it is a source of truth. If it is a source of truth, how can scientists justify ignoring or denying it?

Of course, many scientists deny that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. But if it is, those scientists are missing out on something important, just as if they neglected important data in a study of the effect of a drug. So the question of whether the Bible is true is a question of importance to science, as well as to all other studies.

ID claims that its assertions are not based on the Bible, though most practitioners of ID are Christians. It is hard for me to imagine that they would make the claims they do if they were not Christians. But that issue is irrelevant. To establish the scientific character of one's assertions, it is not necessary to prove that they don't come from a religious authority. Since I believe the Bible is true, I think that reliance on the Bible (properly interpreted) would be an argument in favor of ID, rather than against it. The attempt of ID writers to distance themselves from the Bible is, I think, an expedient to avoid certain popular objections, rather than a position necessary to bona fide science.

I conclude that ID is just as scientific, and just as religious, as neo-Darwinism. As such it should be given a position of parity with Darwinism in the schools. This is not likely to happen in the near future, because of the courts' homage to a sharp separation between religion and science, and because of an illegitimate doctrine of church and state. But on the intrinsic merits of the case, the two positions should at least be taught side-by-side.

Schools typically claim to be open to all significant points of view. Students learn to think critically by being exposed to different positions for evaluation. No human theory is infallible. Mistakes can be found in the writings of neo-Darwinists and of ID writers alike. To expose children only to the neo-Darwinist position, and to make the (to my mind fantastic) claim that it is "fact, not theory" is to deprive them of a serious opportunity for critical thought and to impoverish their education. That kind of dogmatism is, to my mind, the final proof that evolutionism is religion as well as science. Those who deny that orthodoxy, like the ID writers, are by that very denial making a substantial contribution to science.


  1. Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1991.
  2. See his Darwin's Black Box (NY: Free Press, 1996).
  3. See his Intelligent Design (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999).
  4. Poythress, "Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46/1: 111-23. Available at www.frame-poythress.org.
  5. Besides this, the latter proof runs up against the standard difficulties in proving a negative.
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